Jewish Americans praise Biden’s handling of Israel as progressives call for cease-fire

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden pointed to the 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists chanted “Jews will not replace us,” as an impetus for declaring a presidential run in 2020.

He has spoken about taking his grandchildren to see Dachau, an infamous concentration camp where tens of thousands of Jews drew their last breaths.

In May, the Biden administration released a national strategy to counter antisemitism following a spike in reported antisemitic incidents last year.

American Jews have taken note, according to several leaders who say they have observed a shift, particularly among groups that did not previously support Biden.

After Hamas’ attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, many American Jews are rallying around Biden’s handling of the war, referring to his response as a show of “moral clarity.” Thousands are expected to descend upon Washington on Tuesday to push for continued assistance to Israel.

Biden “feels it in his kishkes,” said Halie Soifer, the CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, using a Yiddish word that can translate to “gut.” “He feels the connection to our community.”

She added, “He’s a man of clear moral clarity.”

Sarah Hurwitz, a White House speechwriter for the Obama administration, said in an email, “To have a president who is so steady, with such a strong moral core, and such deep wisdom and experience — it’s really heartening right now.”

American Jews overwhelmingly align themselves with Democrats. Before the 2020 election, a Pew Research Center survey found that 71% of Jews surveyed consider themselves Democrats or lean Democratic. But amid the war, Biden is also attracting praise from more religious Jews, a constituency that often identifies as Republican.

Ariella Gordon, 28, an Orthodox Jew living in Maryland, said it was “pleasantly shocking” to see Biden’s strength in his “moral clarity.”

“It’s becoming increasingly apparent as a Jew in America that our friends really are few and far between,” said Gordon, who identifies as politically conservative.

“I would consider Biden to be a friend of Israel and Jews in America,” she said when she was asked whether Biden is among those friends.

The shifting support for Biden among Orthodox Jews may not translate to additional votes in 2024. Only about 2.4% of U.S. adults are Jewish, according to a Pew report released in 2021, and just a small fraction of American Jews are Orthodox. On the other side, Biden has faced increasing criticism from pro-Palestinian factions of the Democratic Party, including some Arab American leaders who are threatening to withhold support for his re-election bid in critical swing states like Michigan and Minnesota. The lack of political impact from swinging Jewish voters has largely meant less attention has been paid since the war broke out.

“I can tell you, at least anecdotally, that many, many people in the community who certainly voted for Trump are, are very grateful and appreciative of how President Biden has been supporting Israel in this battle against Hamas,” said Nathan Diament, a leader of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. Diament declined to share how he voted in 2020.

Naomi Grant, 26, a Modern Orthodox Jew living in Washington, D.C., said: “Biden has really not stood by Israel as much as I would have hoped since he has been elected, but at least he, he is now. So I do appreciate that his administration is improving.”

Grant, who considers herself politically moderate, voted for Biden in 2020 but does not plan to support him in 2024 because of his policies toward Iran and his age — Biden will be 81 years old this month. She said she “definitely wouldn’t vote for Trump,” either.

But for some, Biden’s age is a testament to his long record on Israel. He was born a handful of years before the establishment of the Israeli state. In speeches over the years, he has frequently recalled former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s telling him Israel’s secret weapon: “We have no place else to go.”

“This is actually a positive aspect of his age,” said Soifer, who was a senior policy adviser to Samantha Power when she was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Obama administration. “No one has a longer record on this issue than Joe Biden. He’s been working on this issue since he was elected to the Senate in 1972.”

In the aftermath of the Hamas attacks, Biden condemned the “pure, unadulterated evil” that took place Oct. 7, emphasizing again and again that the U.S. stands with Israel. Just days after the attacks, he embarked on a whirlwind trip to Israel. He also spoke to a roundtable of Jewish community leaders.

Several members of the roundtable told NBC News that they have since met with leaders from the Education Department, the Justice Department and the FBI.

“I think they’ve been incredibly receptive and responsive,” said Amy Spitalnick, the CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, who has attended meetings with administration officials. “I think it’s deeply personal for so, so many of them on various levels.”

The meetings come at a personal time for many American Jews, who face a spike in antisemitic incidents after Oct. 7. The Anti-Defamation League’s preliminary data recorded a 388% increase in harassment, vandalism and assault in the weeks after the attacks, compared to the same period last year.

“I can’t recall a scarier time to be Jewish in America,” said Sheila Katz, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, who has met with administration officials about their response to the war and antisemitism following Oct. 7.

Jews’ security concerns amid rising antisemitism “became even more intense after Tree of Life in Pittsburgh five years ago,” said Eric Lesser, a former Obama aide who is Jewish, referring to the 2018 attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 people dead. “And now it feels many orders of magnitude beyond that. And I think the community has really been comforted by how President Biden has spoken about the conflict.”

The administration, however, still faces staunch criticism from a faction of Jews who are rallying for a cease-fire.

Hundreds of American Jews and allies demonstrated on the National Mall and in a congressional office building last month to call on Biden to join their demand for a cease-fire.

“We can’t stay silent as long as the Israeli military is committing atrocities in our name,” reads a website page for Jewish Voice for Peace, a self-described progressive Jewish anti-Zionist organization that says it has upward of 700,000 members and supporters.

Shoshana, 29, a Modern Orthodox Jew living in Seattle, said she was upset that the Biden administration was not calling for a cease-fire. She asked that her last name not be used because she feared blowback from community members.

“I think it is our duty as Jews, as people who have been so incredibly oppressed for centuries, that we stand up for people who are in pain and for people who are suffering, that we shouldn’t be turning around and doing the same things that have been done to us for centuries,” said Shoshana, who identifies as a progressive Democrat.

In the weeks after the start of the war, the Biden administration ramped up outreach to Muslim and Arab Americans as some White House aides worried that Biden had not shown enough care for those communities as the death toll of Palestinian civilians climbed.

In a statement, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates, while also emphasizing Biden’s support for Israel and work against antisemitism, pointed to Biden’s work to “prioritize the needs of the Palestinian people — the vast majority of whom have nothing to do with Hamas — by securing humanitarian aid, working to alleviate suffering in Gaza, and urging Israel to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties as they root out Hamas.”

“Fighting against the poison of hate, including antisemitism, and standing up for Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself have always been core values for President Biden,” the top of his statement read. “And they always will be.”

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